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Claim alleges Sheriff Villanueva directed cover-up of deputy kneeling on inmate

VIDEO | 01:53
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department use of force

Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials subdue an inmate, with a deputy kneeling on the man’s head.

A Los Angeles County sheriff’s commander who was critical of efforts to cover up an incident in which a deputy kneeled on a handcuffed inmate’s head has filed legal papers accusing Sheriff Alex Villanueva of obstructing justice and retaliating against those who blew the whistle.

In the legal claim against L.A. County, which is a required precursor to a lawsuit, Allen Castellano offered new details about Villanueva’s alleged role in keeping the March 2021 incident under wraps that contradict the sheriff’s claim that he learned of the incident several months after it happened.

According to the claim, Villanueva, along with a lieutenant working as his aide, Undersheriff Tim Murakami and Assistant Sheriff Robin Limon, viewed a video of the incident just five days after it occurred.

After watching, Villanueva allegedly said to the group, “We do not need bad media at this time,” and told Limon that he would “handle the matter,” the claim said.

“Villanueva really meant that he would proceed to obstruct justice and direct a cover-up of the incident,” the claim alleged.

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Villanueva did not respond to a request for comment. The Sheriff’s Department announced Monday that Villanueva would hold a news conference Tuesday regarding “false claims” made in a recent lawsuit by a “disgruntled employee.”

Officials were worried about the optics of the kneeling, “given its nature and its similarities to widely publicized George Floyd use of force,” a commander who was critical of the coverup wrote in an internal force review.

The filing goes on to allege that Villanueva blocked a criminal investigation into the deputy for using excessive force and stopped assault charges from being filed against the inmate in an attempt to keep the violent detention secret.

“Villanueva knew that if assault charges were filed against the inmate, his defense attorney would have gotten access to the video and the public could see it,” the claim says.

Villanueva said the deputy who kneeled on the inmate was relieved of duty in November, immediately after the sheriff learned of the incident. The claim says Johnson wasn’t relieved of duty until Dec. 7.

The county’s inspector general, who oversees the Sheriff’s Department, is probing whether Villanueva lied about what he knew and when. And Lt. Jim Braden told The Times that he contacted the FBI to report that he believes the handling of the incident violated department procedures and may have amounted to criminal obstruction of justice or conspiracy.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva is being investigated over allegations he watched video of a deputy kneeling on an inmate’s head months before Villanueva said he did.

The Times revealed the violent detention, which happened on the morning of March 10, 2021, and the allegations of a cover-up.

That morning, deputies were conducting routine searches of inmates before their court appearances at the San Fernando Courthouse when deputies told two inmates to be quiet.

As the pair continued talking and laughing, Deputy Douglas Johnson ordered one of the men, Enzo Escalante, to stop and face the wall.

Security video obtained by The Times shows Johnson walking closely behind Escalante through a hallway before ushering him toward a wall.

Escalante turned around and punched Johnson in the face multiple times. Johnson and other deputies then took Escalante to the ground, positioning him facedown.

After he was handcuffed, Johnson kept his knee on Escalante’s head for three minutes.

Castellano notified his supervisor, Chief LuJuana Haselrig, about the force, and took the video to Limon so she could make the sheriff aware so that he would “not be caught off guard, if questioned,” the claim said.

In a July 2021 internal report reviewed by The Times, Castellano wrote that officials had worried at the time about the negative publicity that could come from a deputy kneeling on a handcuffed man’s head, “given its nature and its similarities to widely publicized George Floyd use of force.”

Castellano was subsequently targeted for an administrative investigation. The claim alleges Limon and a captain would have backed up Castellano’s account but were blocked by Villanueva from speaking to investigators. Castellano was given a written reprimand for “failing to properly handle an excessive force case.”

Castellano’s claim says he “felt an ethical responsibility” to report illegal conduct by Villanueva and others in his report, and was subsequently subjected to retaliation for blowing the whistle.

According to the claim, there’s a history between Castellano and the sheriff.

The claim says that “Sheriff Villanueva long harbored animosity and a thirst for revenge against” Castellano because in 2015, when Villanueva was a lieutenant, Castellano reported him for failing to get medical aid for an inmate who had been shocked with a Taser. The claim alleges Villanueva tried to blame the incident on Castellano, who was his supervisor at the time, by telling internal investigators Castellano had given him permission to violate department policy. Villanueva was given a five-day suspension, but retired before it was imposed, the claim said.

“After Villanueva was elected sheriff ..., he moved quickly to conceal evidence of the pending discipline and restricted the [Internal Affairs Bureau] investigation from LASD computers,” the claim said, adding that when Villanueva took office he pressured Castellano to “volunteer” to be demoted two ranks down to lieutenant.


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